The New Romance
By: Eric Greenwood
The opening riff of "Something Bigger, Something Brighter" off the Phil Ek-produced The New Romance recalls the gothic reverberation of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead", even down to the ominous drumstick click against the side of the snare. When the guitars kick in and Andrea Zollo's voice pushes into gear, the tiny hairs on your neck bolt upright. The subtle flitter of electronics adds depth to the recessive guitar interplay. Zollo's voice teeters between innocence and anger as the guitars cascade around her. It's an astonishingly powerful opener in both substance and musicianship.
Zollo's singsong melody in "The Grandmother Wolf" eschews any punk pretense in favor of a sophisticated pop sensibility. The sparse bass and vocal breakdown recalls the new wave minimalism of Missing Persons, particularly the way Zollo affects her staccato enunciation: "you are the ones who fascinate us." The slingshot guitars of "All Medicated Geniuses" showcases Pretty Girls Make Graves' technical proficiency while unloading its unique brand of compositional genius without losing any tension. This is the band working on its highest level. Zollo's counter-melody is infectious, as the guitars punch between the beats. As the song peaks, Zollo repeats "We all lie so well" and you have to play it again just to figure out what the fuck just happened and why it kicked your ass.
"Blue Lights" works hard to peel back the progress of "All Medicated Geniuses" with its forcefully awful lyrics and Zollo's faux sexual bravado. Not even the Polvo-esque guitars can save this blatant mistake. "Chemical, Chemical" swoops in with arpeggiated, dueling guitars and Nick DeWitt's equally artistic and acrobatic drumming. Zollo's voice sounds crystalline and pure when it's double-tracked, and she has a naturally alarming tone when she pushes her range, which melds perfectly in the dark context of the spiraling guitars.
The shouted backing vocals in "The Teeth Collector" are evocative of dramatic early '80's pop, revealing yet another facet of the band's charm, but it's pure filler compared to the album's substantive core. Even on middling songs such as this, there's still enough to keep you from skipping through the tracks. "Holy Names" functions on a softer plane, despite the careening, sprawling guitars, but it would be hard to call it a ballad. The title track incorporates a robotic organ line that serves as a foil to the razorblade guitars, as Zollo belts out an angst just barely above teenage frustration: "It’s revealing, fascinating/We got it, we set the motion/Now we have it in our hands/We’re selfish with the new romance."
Few bands have mastered such a high level of calculated tension as Pretty Girls Make Graves has in such a short time span. There are still kinks to work out before the band becomes unstoppable, however. Zollo too often shrinks in the face of minimalism, using an hackneyed, little-girl voice as a crutch, instead of singing her way out with confidence. For some reason she can't seem to avoid that clichéd indie rock tone when she's in a corner. It's a forgivable tick, especially when her powers far outweigh her weaknesses, but it causes certain passages of the album to drag, most notably in the final third.
When it all shakes out, The New Romance unquestionably soars above its competition. It is immediate and arresting in ways most records falter. Pretty Girls Make Graves' arsenal is jam-packed with explosive dynamic shifts, frenzied energy, and memorable, anthematic choruses. To dismiss this band in relation to its limited aesthetic is to misunderstand its ability. How many bands can you name that matter? Pretty Girls Make Graves just landed on the short list.